Psychedelic Cumbia Legends Juaneco y Su Combo’s Feral First Two Albums Available for the First Time Outside Peru
In 2008, Barbes Records released the first collection of recordings by Juaneco y Su Combo ever issued outside of the strange and hitherto obscure band’s native Peru. Beginning in the late 60s, Juaneco y Su Combo were pioneers of a surreal, viscerally psychedelic blend of surf music, acid rock, Peruvian folk tunes, Colombian grooves and Cuban dances, which became known as chicha. The corn beverage whose name became attached to the music is sort of the Peruvian equivalent of malt liquor: the ghetto intoxicant of choice. Used as an adjective, it connotes exactly that: “ghetto.“ The chicha revolution in Peru mirrored what was happening at the same time with roots reggae in Jamaica or with turbo-folk in the Balkans: electric instruments and American rock influences transforming the local flavors. That, and planeloads of ganja.
Among the scores of amazing bands – Los Destellos, Los Mirlos, Los Wremblers and Los Diablos Rojos, among others - playing chicha (or “cumbia sicodelica”) during its peak in the 70s, Juaneco y Su Combo were among the strangest and most feral. They dressed in Shipibo Indian costumes – a radical and considerably dangerous look to adopt, considering how brutally persecuted that population had been from the days of the conquistadors through the dictatorship of Juaneco‘s era. With keening Farfisa organ, tinny electric guitars and bass, the band mixed and ripped coastal Afro-Cuban chants, rustic mountain melodies, hypnotic jungle beats and spiky, glimmering, eerily reverberating surf riffage. Now, the Vital Record has made Juaneco y Su Combo’s first 1970 singles and ep, plus their 1972 full-length debut available for the first time ever outside of Peru as an eighteen-track anthology titled The Birth of Jungle Cumbia. These rare sides – remastered from collectible vinyl since the original masters were lost long ago – capture the band at their wildest, before any producer had the chance to tone down their sound.
As with most chicha bands, their songs are mostly instrumental: the band chants a chorus – usually about a girl, or partying, or local mythology – or somebody exclaims, “Tasty!” and that‘s about it. The occasional out-of-tune guitar, crunched chord or missed beat only adds to the raw spontaneity of the music, obviously recorded live and probably without any second takes. The top end of the Farfisa distorts a lot, and you can hear the engineer tweak levels or even the master volume on the fly.
The band’s de facto frontman, lead guitarist Noe Fachin, was a visionary tunesmith, but as a musician he wasn’t always the witch doctor he was reputed to be. If only he’d practiced more, or hadn’t gotten so stoned before he went into the studio for these sessions: one of the reasons Juaneco’s early material sounds so feral is because Fachin’s lead lines can be so unhinged, losing his grip on his incessant, signature hammer-ons and pull-offs, or wandering away from the beat. While he proved capable of playing with a lot more focus, ultimately we’ll never know what he could have become because on May 2, 1977, he and five of his bandmates were killed in the second horrible plane crash to hit their native Puycallpa in six years. Bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio- who wasn’t on that plane – had lost two family members earlier in an even more horrific crash on Christmas Eve, 1971, which in a cruel stroke of irony the band memorializes in one of the more subdued numbers here.
The first dozen tracks are the 1972 album. A vamping clip-clop groove illustrates the story of an Amazonian centaur woman being chased by the devil, who whips her for being promiscuous. Fachin makes primitive fuzzbox rock out of birdsong, then on the next track staggers his catchy minor-key vamps while Juaneco tells a “negra linda” how much fun his cumbia is. The Farfisa echoes Fachin’s lead lines in very close counterpoint for one of the album’s coolest effects on Me Voy Pa’ Trompeteros: “I’m heading up to oil country,” essentially, a shout-out to regional pride.
Bassist Walter Dominguez contributes a bouncy, cheery number about a pretty palm fruit vendor along with a dedication to his daughter Karina that’s part Byrds, part proto-salsa. This band listened very eclectically: there are echoes of the Ventures’ Out of Limits on Perdido en El Espacio and go-go music on Bailando con Juaneco. The bandleader plays roller-rink organ over a scampering cumbia beat on Rosita y Las Avispitas (Rosita and the Hornets), and also contributes the slow, haunting, bolero-tinged vocal number El Forastero (The Stranger), sung passionately by guiro player Wilindoro Cacique.
The material from the 1970 sessions is a lot more interesting, more melodically complex, closer to rock than electrified Peruvian folk or cumbia, and Fachin is on top of his game even if the boomy sonics aren’t up to the level of the album from two years later. The lead guitarist’s deviously matter-of-fact, spiraling solo slowly pans from left to right and back on Sirenita Enamorada (Mermaid in Love) and he adds a dark chromatic edge to his phrasing on Guajira Loretana. Juaneco’s La Incognita is the most Cuban-flavored track here, followed by the aptly spritely La Danza Del Yacuruna (Dance of the Evil Water Spirit).
The final two tracks comprise the band’s first single. Romance Shipibo (the b-side) is darkly psychedelic folk-rock with a clattering Peruvian groove. And while Fachin’s happy-go-lucky shuffle Aguita de Manantay might bring to mind a babbling brook, the tributary in question was actually fetid and disgusting. Since Juaneco lived nearby, this was a band joke. Oh yeah – you can dance to everything here, in fact you’re supposed to.
After the second plane crash, Juaneco regrouped with the remaining members, although their sound changed considerably. The band is still active in Peru, with Cacique still on lead vocals. Where can you hear this amazing stuff online? Ummm…there isn’t much of anything at the album page, but there are a couple of tracks at the publicists’ site.